TAQADDUM, Iraq—Desolate doesn't begin to describe this place. The wind is strong, but it's silent because it has nothing to hit. A fine dust coats everything in minutes; Saddam Hussein hid fighter jets in the sand here.
About 350 Army National Guardsmen from the pine woods and lakes of west central Minnesota are stationed at Taqaddum (Tack-a-dum), guarding a large Marine Corps logistics center in the heart of western Iraq's arid Sunni Triangle. On Monday, they assembled at the dusty base chapel to remember Staff Sgt. Joshua Hanson, who was killed on Aug. 30 when his Humvee ran over an anti-tank mine.
Hanson, 27, who played high school football and earned a college degree in law enforcement, was planning to become a sheriff's deputy in Otter Tail County, Minn. He was supposed to come home on leave next month. Jessica Fahje, a longtime friend, said some high school friends were planning a hayride.
Far from the sectarian fighting in Baghdad, where the bodies of 33 more men turned up on Monday, the skirmishes, ambushes and roadside bombings in western Iraq's Anbar province are equally relentless but sometimes seem pointless.
American patrols around Taqaddum have come under attack twice in the last three days, the Marine logistics base has been hit by almost nightly rocket and mortar attacks for three weeks and the Marines have taken significant casualties.
Good intelligence is hard to come by, but for $200 to $400, more than the average monthly wage in Iraq, some Iraqis become insurgents for a day, planting explosives in a road, then retreating back into their lives. Some U.S. officers think that al-Qaeda groups they've flushed out of Ramadi may be responsible for some of the attacks.
Whoever's responsible for them, the attacks aren't likely to disrupt any of the U.S. military's main supply routes to Fallujah, Ramadi and other places in Anbar.
Hanson's unit, Company A of the 2nd Combined Arms Battalion, 136th Infantry, was sent to join a four-day sweep of a town near Taqaddum. The Guardsmen often served as overwatch, watching the Marines' backs while they were patrolling. Hanson's Humvee was sandwiched between two Bradley fighting vehicles when it ran over the buried anti-tank mine.
The improvised explosive device (IED), which had a propane accelerator to make it more powerful, detonated under Hanson, blowing his helmet off, pushing the back seat up and trapping his legs.
The four other soldiers in the Humvee were able to get out, and Hanson's fellow Guardsmen, who'd known him for years, rushed to his aid.
Sgt. 1st Class James Bakkila, the platoon sergeant, twice tried to pull Hanson out but couldn't. The explosion and fire melted the roof of the Humvee and started setting off some of the 1,800 rounds of ammunition inside.
The soldiers put six wounded comrades in a nearby ditch to protect them from sniper fire, which often follows IED attacks, but there was nothing anyone could do for Hanson.
"Yeah, he's gone, we've got to get out of here," yelled Staff Sgt. Justin Knopf.
An evacuation team headed for the scene and reported hitting two donkeys in the road. When another Guard unit came by less than five minutes later, the Guardsmen noticed wires coming from the donkeys' carcasses. Someone had quickly wired them with explosives.
First one and then a second mortar round hit nearby, knocking Spc. Dustin Heard to the ground. Out of habit, he'd padlocked his Bradley, and he was trying to get back in.
Awaiting Hanson's memorial service back at the base on Monday, Spc. Dan Wilson, who'd been driving the Bradley behind Hanson's Humvee, reflected on going out "beyond the wire" again.
"It ain't no game anymore," Wilson said. "At any second, something can happen, and you have to be ready for it. You react to everybody. You can't trust anybody here."
Bakkila said his wife, a social worker, worries about how the longtime buddies from the small towns of Minnesota would react to Hanson's death.
"The Marine guys that were down there, they were telling us that if they lose a guy, they keep going," Bakkila said. "How long have they known each other? Four months? We've known each other our whole lives."
"The good thing at times like these is that we all know each other," said Staff Sgt. Roger Riewer. "The bad thing is that we all know each other."
He and Hanson went through basic training together when they were still in high school, and when Riewer ran back the opening kickoff of the 1997 high school football season, it was Hanson who tackled him.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.